The tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table has captivated audiences for centuries. From books to Broadway, the story of the boy who would become king has been told and retold countless times. The enduring popularity of Arthurian legend continues into the age of streaming television with The Winter King, a new series on MGM+ that offers a grounded take on the mythical saga.
Rather than leaning on familiar fantasy tropes, The Winter King sets out to provide some historical heft to the narrative of Arthur’s rise to power. Adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Warlord Chronicles novels, the show maintains the broad strokes of the Arthurian myth while injecting a hearty dose of realism. Creators Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore expertly translate Cornwell’s gritty vision to the screen.
The result is a show that feels fresh even as it remains faithful to the timeless heroic arc of Arthur’s journey. Arthur may not be magically receiving a bejeweled sword from the Lady of the Lake in this version, but The Winter King still captures the essence of his aspirational quest to build a just kingdom in the midst of war and chaos.
In this review, we’ll examine how The Winter King puts an intriguing new spin on the legend of King Arthur through stellar performances, strong thematic development, and spectacular production design. While not without some pacing issues common to TV adaptations, the series ultimately provides a compelling take on one of history’s greatest tales.
Grounded in History: Bringing Cornwell’s Vision to Life
While most King Arthur stories revel in the fantastical aspects of his legend, The Winter King takes a different tack by grounding itself in the grim realities of 5th century Britain. The foundation for this fresh approach lies in Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Warlord Chronicles novels, published between 1995-1997.
Rather than depict Arthur pulling a magical sword from a stone, Cornwell envisioned a more gritty and plausible backstory for the future monarch. In Cornwell’s reimagining, Arthur is not born a prince, but rather an unwanted bastard son whose path to the throne must be earned through blood and sacrifice. There are no wizards casting powerful spells, but the lingering influence of pagan druidism still permeates Britain amidst the rising tide of Christianity.
It’s a vision of King Arthur heavily steeped in the actual history of post-Roman Britain and the battles over land and religion that shaped the age. Cornwell adds layers of political intrigue and interpersonal drama onto the skeletal structure of Arthurian lore. The result is an Arthur rendered as a more human and fallible hero forced to make difficult choices in brutal times.
Series creators Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore expertly translate the spirit of Cornwell’s novels to the screen. While condensing and streamlining elements of the dense book trilogy, they retain the core of Cornwell’s perspective on Arthur as a storied warrior striving to live up to his idealistic views. The show may take some liberties with plot details and character arcs, but the rich atmosphere and mature tone of Cornwell’s work shine through.
Fans of the novels may notice differences in how events play out on screen, but The Winter King encapsulates the central conceit of portraying Arthur in a more historically accurate context. By turning to the original source material, the show is able to bypass more familiar renditions of Arthur’s journey and deliver a compelling new take for modern audiences. We are presented with an Arthur not defined by magic, but rather by the actions and beliefs that make him a noble leader.
Bringing the Legend to Life: Standout Elements of The Winter King
One of the chief strengths of The Winter King is the talented ensemble cast that brings Cornwell’s vision to the screen. Leading the way is Iain De Caestecker in the pivotal role of Arthur Pendragon. De Caestecker aptly captures both Arthur’s strength as a leader and his vulnerability during his formative years. Scenes between Arthur and his shunned sister Morgan reveal the glimpses of the uncertain boy behind the future king. And Arthur’s raw grief over his fallen brother in the opening battle immediately dispels any notion of him being a flawless legend and establishes him as deeply human.
Providing an emotional backbone to Arthur’s journey is Ellie James as the fiery druidess Nimue. James inhabits the iconic role of the Lady of the Lake with a fierce intensity, making Nimue an indispensable focal point. Her tragic arc fuels much of the first half of the season and is rendered all the more heartbreaking thanks to James’ powerful performance.
We experience Arthur’s return through the eyes of Derfel, played with an earnest enthusiasm by Stuart Campbell. Derfel’s outsider perspective provides insight into what motivates Arthur and compels people to follow him. Campbell and James have an easy chemistry that brings Cornwell’s star-crossed romance between Derfel and Nimue to life as well.
Rounding out the standout cast are Nathaniel Martello-White’s thoughtful Merlin, Valene Kane’s complex Morgan, and Simon Merrells oozing malevolence as the brutal King Gundleus. Each performance adds new dimensions to familiar characters from Arthurian tradition.
Beyond the acting, The Winter King thoroughly immerses viewers in 5th century Britain through top-notch production design. Filmed on location in England and Wales, the stunning backdrops of coasts, forests, and rolling green hills lend authenticity. Combined with exquisite period costuming and sets, the look and feel of the era comes alive. Careful scene staging, lighting, and camera movement further draw us into the world. The technical craft on display is on par with the lavish production values that became hallmarks of Game of Thrones.
While condensing and altering parts of the sprawling novels, the show stays committed to the core spirit of Cornwell’s grounded perspective on Arthur’s emergence as a leader. Differing from the books, we get more insight into the inner lives of characters like Nimue and Morgan. This expands Cornwell’s vision in compelling ways while still keeping the complexity of the political maneuvering that defines his work.
Navigating a World in Transition: Thematic Resonance in The Winter King
At its core, The Winter King thoughtfully examines seismic societal shifts through the lens of Arthur’s journey. As pagan druidism and its mystical elements slowly give way to the rising influence of Christianity, the very fabric of cultural identity in Britain hangs in the balance. Arthur emerges as a leader precisely at this tense turning point between eras. His values seem progressive, but threaten upheaval of dominant powers.
The show artfully depicts druidism not as overt sorcery, but more subtle rituals and connections to nature that provide comfort to its practitioners. Nathaniel Martello-White brings an understated wisdom to Merlin as both spiritual advisor and pragmatist making difficult choices for the greater good. His protégé Nimue wrestles with reconciling her duty as High Priestess with her own desires, portrayed beautifully by Ellie James.
On the other end, organized religion seeks to supplant these ancient pagan beliefs through coercion and manipulation rather than example. Steven Elder’s Bishop Bedwin means well, but Simon Merrells’ chilling turn as the convert monk Sansum reveals a zealotry that corrupts faith into a weapon for control. We sympathize with characters clinging to tradition while also seeing the appeal of reform.
Beyond the spiritual realm, The Winter King succeeds in untangling the intricate political machinations between battling warlords and territories. Arthur navigates this complex landscape, not instantly commanding obedience through mythic status, but rather having to prove his worth and vision bit by bit. The personal and ideological divisions feel organic rather than convoluted.
What ultimately emerges in Arthur’s quest to unite Britain is a thoughtful rumination on how we define progress and how to enact meaningful change. Arthur bucks harmful norms like human sacrifice, but makes missteps born of idealism as well. Iain De Caestecker’s thoughtful portrayal keeps Arthur human throughout. He sincerely wants to leave the world better than he found it, even if the path there is unclear.
By honing in on this transitional period in Britain’s history, The Winter King taps into timeless questions of legacy, identity, and purpose. At a crossroads filled with uncertainty, Arthur manages to chart a heroic path forward guided by his principles. His journey resonates as an eternal call to fight for progress and unity in any age of upheaval.
Room for Improvement: Areas Where The Winter King Falls Short
For all its accomplishments, The Winter King is not without some flaws common to sprawling novel adaptations. The most glaring issue is uneven pacing and lengthy exposition in the early episodes. The series takes its time doling out character backgrounds and political context. While likely necessary to introduce this complex setting, the slow pace risks losing viewers before the story gains momentum.
It takes a few episodes for the narrative to find its footing. Once Arthur returns from exile, the pace picks up considerably. But the lengthy preamble of setup feels more like a muted history lesson than gripping drama at points. The writers struggle to juggle informative dialogue with forward plot movement in the beginning.
This shaky start highlights the series’ difficulty in making Arthur feel like a well-rounded protagonist from the outset. Perhaps due to his legendary status, Arthur comes across as almost superhuman early on. He seems to immediately command respect despite years away and makes decisions with an air of infallibility.
While likely intentional to convey Arthur’s capabilities, in practice it can render him an aloof character lacking vulnerability. Iain De Caestecker’s nuanced acting manages to humanize Arthur in key moments, but the writing does him no favors in the first half of the season. We get glimpses of inner turmoil, but the show would benefit from more substantive development of Arthur’s relationships beyond Nimue and Derfel.
Another area needing refinement is the action choreography and staging. For all the gritty realism, the climactic battle sequences feel surprisingly routine and airless. The hand-to-hand combat lacks impact and the chaotic scope of the clashes fails to impress.
Compare this to the emotional weight given to moments between the characters, and the disconnect becomes apparent. The fights come off as perfunctory bridges between more compelling dialogue-driven scenes. With Game of Thrones raising the bar for impactful action, The Winter King has room to grow in this department.
Overall, The Winter King shows promise but suffers from some episodic storytelling pitfalls. Streamlining the exposition and diversifying Arthur’s relationships would go a long way toward maintaining viewer engagement. And audiences expect more imagination and impact from the action scenes in a medieval epic of this scale. Addressing these areas would elevate an already strong adaptation.
The Makings of a Legend Realized
Despite a few stumbles, The Winter King succeeds in bringing a refreshing sense of historicity to the oft-told legend of King Arthur. Rooted in Bernard Cornwell’s novels, the series reimagines Arthur as a more down-to-earth hero fighting to unite a fractured Britain in the aftermath of Roman rule.
Bolstered by the talents of Iain De Caestecker, Ellie James, and the rest of the gifted ensemble cast, The Winter King finds emotional truth in even its most fantastical characters. The lived-in sets and stunning on-location cinematography provide an immersive window into 5th century Britain. Moments of thematic sophistication shine through in the religious debates and political gambits.
Uneven pacing and sparse action leave room for improvement in future seasons. But the spirit of Arthur’s aspirational journey remains intact, free of distracting fantasy tropes. He emerges not as a flawless legend, but as an inspiring leader shaped by his principles.
For those fond of medieval tales and new takes on myths, The Winter King warrants a watch. It respectfully refashions Arthurian canon for modern audiences while steering clear of subversive deconstructions. Exquisite production values and almost uniformly strong performances capture the essence of beloved lore. The result is an adaptation that feels both comfortably familiar and excitingly new.
The story of Arthur may be centuries old, but The Winter King proves there are still new facets to explore. By embracing history over fantasy, the series crafts a grounded vision of the makings of a legend. The story of the once and future king continues, but now vividly realized through a lens of human complexity.
The Winter King
The Winter King brings a fresh historical perspective to the legend of King Arthur, grounded in Bernard Cornwell's novels. Anchored by an excellent ensemble cast and transportive production design, the series captures the spirit of Arthur's aspirational journey despite some pacing issues. This new take on a timeless myth earns an overall rating of 8 out of 10.
- Iain De Caestecker's nuanced performance as Arthur
- Ellie James as the fierce, affecting Nimue
- Immersive period details in costumes, sets, and locations
- Explores thoughtful themes around faith, politics, and social change
- Largely faithful adaptation of Cornwell's gritty source material
- Slow, overloaded exposition in early episodes
- Arthur comes across as invincible and aloof initially
- Battle scenes lack visceral impact compared to drama
- Uneven pacing hampers first half of season